Menís Work in Prison

An Interview with Harris Breiman

© 1994 by Bert H. Hoff

In 1991 Harris Breiman helped to start the Shawangunk Menís Council inside the walls of one of New Yorkís maximum security prisons. In our interview with Robert Bly and Robert Moore last summer, both men praised the work Harris was doing. Harris was one of the facilitators at the Mendocino Menís Conference last summer. M.E.N. Magazine editor Bert Hoff took the opportunity to sit at the campfire circle among the redwoods and chat with Harris about his work.

This article is dedicated to the men of the Fellowship of the King of Hearts, in the Shawangunk correctional facility.

Bert: Perhaps you can tell us what your work is about.

Harris: I was invited to facilitate at this conference because of the prison work that Iím doing right now. The prison work is a kind of an evolution from work that I was doing with homeless men, which grew out of a general involvement in menís work that began for me personally about five years ago. My own initial exposure to the menís movement came out of a desire for personal healing, a desire to do some soul work.

Bert: What was the personal work that you started out doing?

Harris: Iím a health care practitioner, and I work with a holistic model of healing; body, mind and soul. I do an integration of many kinds of systems or modalities. I was interested in stress management for a while, and it became clear to me that stress management was a superficial attempt. To go deeper, you need to go into psychology and spirituality. Iíve had an interest in Jungian psychology for many years. This led me into Jungian analysis, for self-awareness as well as to better understand the counseling process. In Jungian analysis there is quite a bit of exposure to archetypal material and quite a bit of discussion about male and female energy. That led me a little over five years ago to want to explore Menís Work. At a time when I was doing my "individualization journey" I had been working with a woman who was an ardent feminist and a priest. That work was an important exploration of the Goddess side and the feminine side of the soul.

But I hadnít done any exploration of the masculine side. There was no appreciation that there was a creative masculine. I, like many men, had bought the idea that masculinity and the patriarchy were one and the same. I did not believe that there was anything to do, except to move away from the patriarchy towards the feminine. So when I began to hear about the work that Robert Bly was doing, it fascinated me and I wanted to check it out. That led into a number of conferences and workshops.

I think what happened through time was that as I began to heal personally, and move on in my life out of some stuck places, I had a desire to begin to bring some of this sense of blessing or fullness out into the community, to those who were closer to the edge. I began to work with homeless men at a shelter near my hometown of Woodstock, doing menís support groups and bringing in some of the mythological material that had fascinated me. When I was doing menís group work at the shelter I was, of course, trying to provide a sort of short term crisis care environment, which was essential to the men. But it seemed to me that they also needed to have a sense of empowerment, a capacity to deal with their despair, to deal with their pain and suffering, to deal with the harsh realities of poverty and unemployment, of recovery from addiction, and of coming from broken families, sometimes dealing with mental illness. So the same material that was powerful for me, I wanted to share with them. Thatís been a thread in my life for a long time, that whatís been important to me personally has entered into my professional work.

Bert: As I look around the circle at our Wisdom Council I see upper middle-class white males. When I talk to the man on the street or envision the working man, I imagine him scoffing about all of this kind of stuff. How do homeless men take to the male spirit journey that youíre offering?

Harris: I would say that whatís significant to me in Men's Work and in dealing with material from mythology is that itís universally relevant for all men. It goes across all races, ethnic backgrounds, and class backgrounds. There are some universal issues for men, which Iíve been trying to focus on in the work Iím doing with these men. The issues involved in Menís Work are not terribly different whether you are an unemployed man or an executive in Westchester County, once you get beyond the issue of survival. The survival issue is clearly there, but when you get beyond that, go beyond the surface and get into issues of depth, I believe the issues are the same for all of us.

Bert: What happens to these men as they get into Menís Work?

Harris: What happens is the same thing that is happening for those of us who are here at this Mendocino conference. Thereís an exploration of old wounds, an activation of a certain passion and intensity. There's coming into a positive quality of power rather than a destructive sense of power which is dominating and abusive. There is a focus on the issue of purpose. What is my purpose in life? What am I going to be about in the world? So I think the issues are very parallel.

Whatís been important to me, in the evolution of my work, is this question of initiation that has come up in the menís movement. Thereís a lot of focus on initiation. Everyone wants to be initiated, and wants to know about the mysteries of initiation. Initiation takes place in a large cycle. Joseph Campbell talked about a cycle of separation, initiation and return. One of the things that has been of concern to me is this question of return. What does the initiated man do, once he moves beyond the limits of his own, personal transformation? What does it mean to return to the community with the boon from the gods?

I think thatís where the service question comes in. My coming out into the community to try and provide service to men who are at the edge or men in the trenches has led me to work first with homeless men, and now with men in prison. This has come out of taking that larger cycle of separation, initiation and return very seriously.

I think that whatís happening is that I, as a man of European-American descent and middle-class background and having a relatively greater position of privilege and power, have something to offer to those who have been disenfranchised by our system. Iím not dealing with survival issues, so Iíve had a chance to work on things like self-esteem, self-actualization, integration, and personal wholeness. Unless thatís going to be a narcissistic obsession, it has to move beyond itself. I think it moves beyond itself in service to these people who are at the edge. Then, hopefully, we have to think about working on a systemic level as well, to let people at the edge have the opportunities that you and I might have had, to do this kind of inner work towards personal wholeness.

Bert: Iím struck with your comments on "return" part of separation, initiation, return. When I interviewed Dr. Sam Osherson, author of Finding our Fathers and Wrestling with Love, he said he thought that maybe this return was problematic. What many of the feminists in Women Respond to the Menís Movement were saying was that they were doubting that return. So itís heartwarming to hear you talk about ways that we can do this return.

Harris: The thing that has concerned me in the menís movement, and I think that this is a concern Iíve had about our culture in general, is this question of narcissism. I think that that is the danger in Menís Work. If it remains focused only on the internal level of personal healing and transformation, and it doesn't move beyond itself, then it becomes narcissistic.

I know a lot of social activists, though, who have not done any inner work, and theyíre struggling. If you look at Gloria Steinamís book Revolution from Within you see a woman whoís spent a lifetime as a socially active feminist now talking about the need to deal with her internal life, her soul.

One of the raps thatís been laid down on the menís movement is that all thatís happening is that white, middle-class men are trying to work through their angst in isolation out in the woods. Thereís no social component, thereís no political component, thereís no justice component, thereís no activist component out in the world. So I have felt from the beginning that the notion of the personal and the political being one, the outer and the inner being one, is true. I donít think you do inner work until you come to a point of fullness, and then you move out into the world. I would like to see us embracing simultaneously, in the here and now, the task of dealing with whatís going on in the world and dealing with whatís going on inside. What I have found is that my attempts to be involved in service to the community have led me into personal transformations that would not have been available otherwise. Iím experiencing changes happening from my activity out in the community affecting me inwardly. I think this is a paradigm or a model I would like to see us adopt in Menís Work, the simultaneous commitment to be going inside and to be doing the work in the community.

Bert: Then you went into prison work. How did this begin, and what has the reception been?

Harris: I had helped to co-found the menís council in our community, and from the very beginning I advocated that our council would be open to all men in the community. The notion was that this was going to be a service to the community, and that this was hopefully going to provide a new model for an opportunity for men to get together that would not be stereotypically sports-related, bar- related or work-related.

Through this open menís council, someone came into the life of our group who was a staff member of the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill New York, about an hour away from Woodstock. He began to wonder, after he heard about the work I was doing in the shelter, if we could bring a menís council model into the prison system. So we went down to his supervisors and got the clearance to do an experiment for six months, to see if this would work. That was in December of 1991. Like any process, the beginning was a bit slow, but it has flourished incredibly, to the point that now we have an ongoing council of 15 men that meet every two weeks, an offshoot now forming in the Latino community in the prison, the prospect of a council for the younger men, which is an idea of the men of the original council, through their desire to provide mentoring energy to younger men, and the possibility of another council forming for the Vietnam veterans in the prison. Weíre going to have a meeting in two weeks in the Sing Sing prison, to initiate a council down there.

I want to mention my colleague in the prison, Robert Vosper, the head of the inmate grievance system, who is doing all the inside work to get this all together. Iím enormously indebted to Robert, and to the administration of the prison for allowing this process to take place and for giving us total support so far. Robert has worked with tremendous energy and dedication to make this happen, from the inside. He and Onaje Benjamin, one of the facilitators at this Mendocino conference, will be going down to Sing Sing to get that process started.

Whatís amazing about all of this is that itís all been taking place as a volunteer activity. It has not been an income-generating project or a way of making money by doing Menís Work, itís been the fruit of the beauty and the power of Menís Work moving out into the world through service. Thatís where the power of the project has come from.

As you know, it had media coverage by the New York Times, the BBC radio, the WNYC public broadcasting system affiliate, by Japanese network television, and other international coverage of this project. Itís been quite astounding.

I think the power of the project is in seeing men who are stereotypically labeled, beginning to bring forth a tremendous amount of beauty, power and intelligence. I canít say this is exclusively the result of the Menís Work that weíre doing. These men have been working on themselves in their own ways through their spiritual communities as well. But thereís a real new thing happening, in terms of the Menís Work perspectives coming into the prison and the concerns of the imprisoned men coming out to the menís movement community. Thatís something I would like to focus on for a moment.

Bert: I want to come back to that, but for more background, these are mainly African- American men in prison?

Harris: In the prison Iím in, and in New York State in general, about 80% of the prison population is African-American or Latino. So my council is African-American and Latino men, with the exception of another European-American man and myself.

Bert: Does Menís Work speak to them, and is their work any different than our work?

Harris: I think the important thing thatís been taking place through my contact with them is this: they have enormous passion about questions of poverty, questions of crime, and questions of social justice, that I donít think has been addressed in Menís Work until now. As we said before, most of Menís Work has been taking care of the soul, healing the wounds of the father, and maybe activating some of those archetypal energies within. But it hasnít focused in large ways into the outer world. These men are extremely concerned about whatís happening in their communities. Issues of racism, as well, are pressing concerns for them. What I think is happening is that thereís a coming together here of issues of personal transformation on the one hand, and questions about public responsibility and social justice on the other hand. The men have been primarily focused on getting us in the outside menís community to look at these issues of poverty.

Bert: What is being returned back to you, and to the outside, from this work?

Harris: I would say that for myself, coming out of a white, middle-class background, I have lived most of my life very comfortably. Through my background in the Judeau-Christian tradition I have had my conscience awakened to questions of service and social justice, but not to the issues of soul work with the depth of passion and intensity that I have here at this Mendocino conference. So I would say that what these men are doing by challenging my conscience and challenging the community on the outside, is to challenge me to move out of this comfort zone. Theyíre challenging me to move out of a certain passivity in relation to the reality of oppression for people in our culture. Theyíre asking me to think about liberation, not only in personal terms, but in political terms. This is an enormous challenge for all of us, because it takes us down into territories that are not necessarily comfortable.

Robert Bly talks about the necessity of the downward movement into grief, to connect to the soul. Iím seeing now that the menís movement has to go down into the trenches of transformation by working with men at the edges, men who are in prisons, shelters for the homeless, and soup kitchens. We need to work with youth gangs in inner cities, with the youth that need to be mentored and fostered. Those are the territories to which men who are comfortable, who are affluent, may not have not paid a lot of attention. There may be a kind of inertia there, where men donít want to pay a lot of attention to these territories. But thatís where the community of imprisoned men lives. Theyíve come out of the war zone, and now theyíre in the belly of the beast, in prison. These are the issues they want us to pay attention to. Thatís mart of my charge from them to the menís community.

At the same time, theyíve suffered so enormously that they need the therapeutic tools and transformative work that we can provide to them. Thatís why I think thereís a golden opportunity here for a common ground, and for movement into the future thatís embracing all of us simultaneously.

Bert: Robert Bly and Robert Moore, in an interview we published last July, brought out something else, too, about how well this work is received. Robert Bly pointed out that your group is called "The Fellowship of the King of Hearts." We had been talking about media resistance to Menís Work, and how people don't want to get into dealing with anything from the heart. Bly then said that maybe American white males have not been shamed enough to be open to accepting the power of the King and the other archetypes. He suggested that African-American men in prison had been shamed so much, and shoved down so far, that they can take some real pride in the King archetype that we canít talk about in the press.

Harris: Let me tell you where the idea of considering ourselves the Fellowship of the King of Hearts came from. One of the men in our council, Jalil Bottom, has written a paper, which Iíll be sharing here at the conference, called "The Criminalization of Poverty and the Menís Movement Social Contract." He came up with a logo for our council, which is the image of the king of hearts and the phrase "Towards Kingship in Brotherhood." I thought of Robert Mooreís series of books on the archetypes, especially The King Within. To me, the image of the king of hearts speaks to the sacred, creative side of the King archetype. That sacred King is dedicated to being a just steward in the realm, providing care, compassion and generativity that moves out into the community, providing servant leadership, that is, leadership through service.

All that energy is very much an energy of the heart. In the Christian tradition you see the labors of love and the works of mercy connected with Jesus. In the Buddhist tradition you have the bodhisattvas, whose essence was compassion and wisdom, and who were dedicated to serving all of those who were suffering. This sacred energy is a heart energy moving out towards those who are suffering and who are oppressed, to provide them with compassion and aid, to empower them.

As a matter of fact, one of the images I would like us to consider as an image of leadership and the King archetype is the image of the "erect heart." Eugene Monick wrote an important book, The Phallos. So you have the image of the erect phallus as a symbol for masculine potency. Many of us have experienced the importance of that sexual energy. My question is this, is the heart on in a man? The image of the erect heart, or the King energy in the heart, then begins to move out into the world.

If you look at the mythology of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, the knights were warriors in service to the king, but this particular king was in the service of his community and of the earth. When the knights of the Round Table were searching for the Holy Grail, they discovered that the important question to ask was, "Whom does the Grail serve?" When the question was asked, the wounded king would be healed, and the wasteland would become green e again. So right there you have the issue of service, whom does the Grail serve? I would want to say now that service is the Grail cup. When we involve ourselves in service, we become like those knights of the Round Table or rainbow warriors, who are serving the sacred king. The King energy here is the energy that is moving out compassionately into the world, seeking to create peace with justice and seeking to heal, the earth.

So these men arenít in touch with King energy because theyíve been shamed, theyíre in touch with King energy because theyíre concerned about issues of oppression and liberation of their peoples.

Bert: That beings to mind the servant Leo in Herman Hesseís Journey to the East, and Robert Green leaf's book Servant Leadership.

Harris: Thatís the point, the servant leadership concept. Iím so convinced that, right now, if we want to talk about male initiation, for me the sign of an initiated man is that he is going to be moving out in service to the community.

Bert: How can men help you in your work?

Harris: What Iím hoping that will happen is that men will write letters of support to my council, the Menís Council of Shawangunk, and to the prison administration, so we can deepen the commitment of the Department of Corrections in New York State support this work.

Iíd also like to see the men of the community send their energy in to the men in prison, through letters of support and through sending books, articles and audio tapes. Thatís how we can get this work to the men who are imprisoned, who donít have the options that we have on the outside. They can send these to the Menís Council of Shawangunk, care of Robert Vosper, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, PO Box 700, Wallkill NY 21589. The telephone is (914) 895-2081. If anyone wants to be in touch with me, they can contact me at the Mustard Seed Healing Center for Healing, PO Box 632, Woodstock NY 12498. The phone is (914) 679-7441. I would be happy to communicate personally with anyone who has an interest in bringing Menís Work into the prisons of their community, and do anything I can to support it.

Iíd like to see this become a national or international project. That would make me extremely happy. That would also give us an opportunity to have front-line projects, doing powerful outreach in the community, that we can point to with pride when the media comes around to ask us what this Menís Work is all about. We need to have these demonstration projects, these front-line projects, so we can say that this is the fruit of our inner work, coming out into the world. If we had a hundred projects like that, happening simultaneously, we would see a big shift in the media. Thatís what Iíd like to see. Thatís our next step.

Bert: So this is an opportunity for our readers and men in the community to send support to men behind bars and men who are working with men behind bars.

Harris: We need that support terribly, because the levels of psychic violence and despair in prison are awesome. To sustain the effort, you need community, you need that experience of the grace of the spirit, and we need the support of each other. We need that heart-to-heart connection that you were talking about earlier. Then we can really develop an International Fellowship of the King of Hearts.

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